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FAMILY, FAITH AND FOOTBALL: Luke Glendening’s journey to earning the captain’s ‘C’

By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published March 4, 2012

EAST GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Billy Powers won’t forget that conversation.

It was late April 2008, and the Michigan hockey assistant coach had just extended a one-year tryout offer to Luke Glendening, a forward recruit from The Hotchiss School, a prep institution in Lakeville, Conn.

“You’re on a one-year tryout,” Powers told Glendening. “If you’re good in practice, you’ll stay.”

Powers left him with one last word of warning.

“If you have somewhere else to go, you should probably do it.”

Powers almost surprised himself with the offer — he’d only actually seen the gritty Glendening play once. But there was nothing ironclad about this offer. No promises. No scholarship. Just a one-year tryout.

“I remember the conversation as plain as day,” Powers said. “You really don’t have many of those conversations with recruits. Usually, you’re telling kids that they have a guaranteed spot and that they’re going to be there for four years.

“But I couldn’t in all confidence promise Luke that he had any chance at all to crack our lineup as a rookie. It was more of an opportunity for him to get in front of us every day. If he felt he could have an impact on us, then we could try and take him beyond one year.”

Four years later, Glendening is still a member of the Michigan hockey team. Not only does he have a spot on the bench, he’s a second-year captain — the tireless leader of the sixth-ranked Wolverines.

But that’s just the middle and ending of his story. To understand Glendening’s backstory, you have to step off of the ice and onto the gridiron.

***

Peter Stuursma raised his hand and blew a sharp whistle. A linebacker leapt out of his stance and tore into the backfield, walloping the tackling dummy.

The hand went up again, and the whistle pierced the air.

Pads met pads and the dummy hurtled to the ground again. Stuursma smiled. The East Grand Rapids football coach was leading a linebacker drill. That particular lesson was an important one: How to blow up the fullback on a bull-rush.

The tackling dummy was Luke Glendening.

Stuursma liked what he saw in the scrawny sophomore. It was Glendening’s first week on the varsity squad. Despite his lack of brawn, he was already being penciled in as the starting fullback.

Plucking grass out of his facemask and struggling back to his feet, Glendening realized that he probably wasn’t built to play football. His genes weren’t the problem — they were probably the only thing going for him. His father, Tom Glendening, was the starting fullback for Bowling Green in the early 1980s. His mother, Leslie Glendening, had been a Bowling Green cheerleader.

Joe Glendening, Luke’s younger brother, was an All-American as a junior running back at Division-II Hillsdale College last fall, racking up 1,604 rushing yards and 31 total touchdowns. (Even today, when Luke returns to East Grand Rapids, he’s “Joe’s brother.”)

Somehow, that All-American pedigree wasn’t translating to Luke.

Until that sunny afternoon on the practice field, Luke had always found an excuse to discount weight-room workouts.

“Luke always gave me his theory that weight lifting doesn’t really work,” Stuursma recalled.

Being a three-sport athlete — football, hockey and baseball — through high school kept Luke in shape, but lifting wasn’t a priority.

That changed with one linebacker drill. Stuursma’s tackling dummy didn’t miss another lift. And he had plenty of motivation. If practices were painful, Friday night football games were terrifying.

As the starting fullback, Luke was the lead blocker for the star senior running back — five-star recruit and Michigan commit Kevin Grady. Grady set the state records for career rushing attempts, rushing yards, touchdowns and points at East Grand Rapids.

Grady was a burly 225 pounds. Luke was not.

“I was a buck fifty-five soaking wet my sophomore year,” Luke said. “It’s just a funny picture: You’ve got this All-American running back and me, this little weakling guy, trying to block for him.

“It was almost comical at that point.”

Two years later, Luke had grown into his role as fullback and senior captain. He was still the lead blocker for a Grady, but now it was for Kevin’s brother, running back Kelvin Grady, and his cousin, quarterback DeMarcus Grady.

The triple-threat backfield comprised one of the best running games in the state. Luke was the leader in the weight room, while Kelvin, a future Michigan receiver, carried the load on the field.

“Luke is a freak of nature,” Kelvin said. “He is — he’s a freak.”

The duo patrolled the Pioneer backfield en route to a run to the 2006 Division-III MHSAA State Championship. Luke played on a torn MCL for the last five weeks of the state title run. Instead of practicing on the field with his teammates, the fullback was in the training room or rehabbing in the swimming pool.

“And then on Saturday, he’d rip off 140 yards on 15 carries and bash over linebackers for Kelvin,” Stuursma said. “We’d put him on a bike between downs and series if we could rest him.

“He said if he just keeps his legs moving, it didn’t hurt, but once he stopped, it’d hurt. So he kept moving and we kept playing him and he never quit.”

In the state final at Ford Field in Detroit, East Grand Rapids rumbled past Farmington Hills Harrison for a 42-17 victory. Kelvin scampered for 209 yards and two touchdowns. Running on one leg, Luke barreled his way for 98 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

Stuursma doesn’t remember the state-final victory quite as well anymore. Instead, he quickly brings up a matchup against Grand Rapids Catholic Central during Luke’s junior season.

To him, it illustrates everything you need to know about Luke.

East Grand Rapids lined up at its own 15-yard line and put the running backs to work.

“Kelvin was ripping of six-, eight-, 10-, 15-yard gainers here and there, then we’d give it to Luke and he’d get a tough yard or two,” Stuursma said.

With the ball lined up at the Catholic Central one-yard line, Stuursma sent his play call into the huddle. It was a fullback dive. Luke looked across the huddle at Kelvin, stared down at the dirt and shook his head. Luke took the handoff and scored.

He came off to the Pioneers sideline and went straight to Stuursma. Both coach and player remember the incident, nearly seven years later.

“We got in a little scuffle because I came off and said ‘Hey, give it to Kelvin next time,’ ” Luke said.

“I got in his kitchen a little bit about it, saying, ‘Listen, you play, I’ll coach,’ ” Stuursma added.

“He freaked out, and rightfully so,” Luke said, smiling at the memory. “I was a 16-year-old kid telling him what to do.

“I just felt bad. Kelvin just did everything. I blocked a few guys, sure, but he seriously took the ball 85 yards and then I get one yard for the touchdown.”

Stuursma says he’s never seen a player with as much heart and conviction on and off the field than Luke.

“From that point on, it became more than a coach-player relationship, but more of a friendship,” Stuursma said.

***

A yellowing newspaper clipping tells the story of a fourth-string fullback who emerged as a starter and team captain as a junior. The excerpt, clipped from the Toledo Blade, is dated Aug. 31, 1981.

The accompanying photo shows Tom Glendening, a shaggy-haired fullback from western Michigan who won a spot on the Bowling Green football team.

He’s called a maverick, a winner, a captain.

Tom’s journey wasn’t so different from Luke’s. The difference, though, is that nobody wanted Tom’s kid.

As his senior year came to a close, Luke held football walk-on offers from Wheaton and Hope, two Division-III Christian colleges. But Luke didn’t want to play football. Hockey was his passion — it just wasn’t his strong suit.

His backers knew Luke’s work ethic and humility would land him somewhere, they just didn’t know where.

“I knew what he was worth,” Kelvin said. “I knew that he could play at any school in the country, football or hockey, just because I’d been around him. He told me he was willing to go wherever would take him — he just wanted to play.

“People don’t know this about him, but while Luke is a great hockey player, he could’ve easily come to Michigan and played football here.”

With Luke treading water with his college decision, the Glendenings decided to keep his options open for another year by sending Luke to Hotchkiss. Ivy League schools, they were told, like to pluck football players from prep schools. It was also a last chance to play hockey.

As the football season approached, the University of Pennsylvania’s football program said they had a spot for Luke. But as the fall football season wound down, he heard less and less from Penn. Finally, they pulled their offer.

Luke was crushed.

“I felt it was a wasted year,” Luke said. “I came out here, and I could’ve played already at Hope or Wheaton. I didn’t need this year of misery to do that.”

With the added disappointment, Luke struggled with homesickness, with his family 700 miles away.

They tried to find ways to help. In November, Tom and Leslie determined that it would be 31 days until Luke would see them, when Hotchkiss closed for Christmas break. They told Luke to start reading 1 Samuel, the ninth book of the Old Testament. It had 31 chapters. Read one chapter every night, they said, then they would talk about it on the phone.

So they did.

Wheaton was still willing to offer him a spot for the next fall, but it had a mid-December deadline. As it approached, Luke leafed through the passages of 1 Samuel and wrestled with the decision. He dreamt of playing hockey, but this could be his last chance at playing collegiate athletics.

Leslie remembers a phone call from her son in mid-December.

“I don’t know what to do, Mom,” Luke said.

“Just pray about it.”

“I am praying,” he said. “God’s not answering.”

“This is the faith part,” Leslie told him. “Remember what you’ve been reading? You have to be patient. You have to trust.”

Luke didn’t give Wheaton an answer. That weekend, Billy Powers was in the stands at Hotchkiss.

***

The reason Powers visited Hotchkiss in the first place had nothing to do with Luke. He was there to see one of Luke’s teammates — defenseman Mac Bennett.

Luke didn’t know who Powers was or that the coach was even at the holiday tournament. But in the finals, Luke scored both of Hotchkiss’s goals against rival Deerfield — it was impeccable timing for two of his eight goals all season.

Powers came away impressed.

“Guess who was at my game today?” Luke asked his parents in a postgame phone call. “Coach told me I picked a good day to play well, because Michigan was here. They may be interested in taking me as a preferred walk-on.”

It wasn’t a phone call they ever expected. Somehow, Michigan — the premier program in college hockey — was in the picture.

It was still early, but Powers was serious about this one. It wasn’t the goal-scoring ability that stood out, it was the shift-to-shift mentality, the aggressiveness.

“He has the explosion of a running back,” Powers said. “Luke really explodes, and there’s great power in his stride. His physicality, the way he hits, he uses his full body like in football.

“You’re just not going to see Luke Glendening get knocked down, I don’t care how big the guy is.”

Bennett committed to Michigan during the season, but it was the touted recruit who was taking pointers from Luke, the walk-on hopeful.

“I cannot say enough good things about Luke Glendening,” Bennett said. “That kid is a stud in every way. Off the ice, he’s someone that I try to model myself after — he does everything right. He puts in the effort, doesn’t take any shortcuts. Maybe it’s that western-Michigan mindset or something, but he just puts in the work.”

The Hotchkiss season finished in late February. It wasn’t until April that Powers finally gave Glendening a call. Freshman standout Max Pacioretty was signing a professional contract and leaving school. Michigan had a spot for Luke.

***

Stuursma picked up his tempo to keep up with Luke. Gravel crackled underfoot as the former player-coach duo jogged around Reed’s Lake in East Grand Rapids.

It was early August 2008. The kid wasn’t a scrawny sophomore anymore — he was just two weeks away from joining the Michigan hockey team for his freshman season. Luke had come a long way.

“Do you have any doubts you can play?” Stuursma asked.

Luke hesitated as he glanced back.

“Not one doubt,” he finally answered.

It wasn’t necessarily true. It may have been. He can’t remember, exactly.

“In my mind, I was thinking, ‘Maybe I do,’ ” Luke said. “People around me had instilled so much, ‘You can do it, you can do it, you can do it,’ when I thought there was no way. When I lost my confidence, other people gave it to me.”

Stuursma’s confidence never wavered. Luke had earned his trust as a captain at East Grand Rapids. He knew if someone gave Luke a chance, he’d prove himself.

But proving himself wasn’t going to be easy. When Luke arrived at Michigan, he had a clean slate. So clean, in fact, that Michigan coach Red Berenson didn’t know his name. Teammate Louie Caporusso called him ‘Fleming’ through camp until Luke finally corrected him.

Powers, the only coach who had seen Luke play, wasn’t around for the first week of training in September. He remembers his conversation with Berenson and assistant coach Mel Pearson.

“They told me I underestimated Luke Glendening,” Powers said. “And I did.”

Even then, the Glendenings didn’t really understand Luke’s position on the team.

“I’m thinking a preferred walk-on means there are 60 freshmen trying for two positions,” Tom said, giving a chuckle. “He called us when he got there and said, ‘No, I’ve got my own stall, and it’s actually in the locker room!’ ”

Luke had a spot, that much was certain, but he was going to have to grow into it. First, though, he had to grow into his equipment.

“Luke tells the story of being a tin man in the first practice,” Tom said. “He had all-new equipment, so he couldn’t skate. It was brutal. He’d never gotten new equipment before.”

“I was a mess,” Luke added. “It was a disaster.”

It wasn’t long before Berenson learned the name on the back of the No. 23 sweater. Luke was staying stride for stride with Carl Hagelin through the dry-land training.

“First impressions are important, and (Luke’s) first impressions were as good as they get,” Berenson said. “I was pleased that he could outrun and out-anything half of our team and he was a walk-on freshman.

Still, he was just a practice player. He was on a tryout. When the first exhibition game came around on Oct. 4, 2008, Luke took his seat high above the ice at Yost Ice Arena as a healthy scratch.

That was supposed to be the game-day routine. Supposed to be.

“I watched six games from up there,” Luke said.

Luke had quickly earned Berenson’s trust. The walk-on who was never promised ice time suited up for the second exhibition of the season.

The morning after Luke watched Michigan's first exhibition, the Glendenings were just sitting down for the morning service at Crossroads Bible Church in Grand Rapids when Tom’s phone buzzed. It was Luke. He was in the lineup.

“When I heard that, I thought ‘I must have misunderstood what this whole Michigan thing was,’ ” Joe said. “I didn’t think he’d get into the lineup until they were battling injury midseason or something.”

The family dashed out of church and sped through the three-hour trip to Ann Arbor to make the 4:05 p.m. start time against Waterloo.

“We walked into the rink — I think it was the first time I’d been in Yost in a game situation — and just the smell of the place kind of envelops you,” Tom said. “I looked up and saw him standing on the blue line and ...”

Tom paused mid-sentence, glancing down.

“That was all that mattered. He lived his dream. If that was the last day he played …”

His voice trailed off again.

“He was lost out there in his first game. But you don’t often get to see your kid living what he’s been dreaming.”

***

It was the eve of the 2011 NCAA national-title game.

On a podium in St. Paul, Minn., Berenson glanced down the row of chairs to his left. His eyes locked on the final seat. The placard in front of the empty seat read Luke Glendening.

The veteran coach gave a small smile and turned back. If he were to pick any single player to represent the Michigan program, it would be his junior captain — he’d never seen the kid stop fighting.

“It seems like a lot of the younger generation, they feel entitled and not as willing to work,” Berenson said. “But I tell you what, the kid (who was) sitting at the end of the table here, Luke Glendening, he came to Michigan like (senior goaltender) Shawn Hunwick — with no expectations.

“I didn’t know if he would ever play a game, and when I saw him on the ice, I realized that this kid has something special. … He goes through the wall. Off the ice, he is like a machine, and he is just a great kid. Those are the kind of kids that set an example for those entitled kids.”

At the time, Luke was splitting a scholarship with goaltender Shawn Hunwick — the captain and the star goalie, both former walk-ons who were once thought destined for inglorious careers as reserves.

Powers said the one-year tryout turned into four years after just a week or two. Back in 2008, Luke wasn’t so confident.

“I didn’t feel comfortable until we had a meeting at the end of the year,” Luke said. “They finally told me I’d be on the team next year. That’s the way I am, maybe I doubt a lot — I don’t think I do — but I needed to hear it from them.”

A year later, immediately following Luke’s sophomore season, the team voted on captains for the following year — the consensus was to elect Hagelin and Glendening.

It was an easy decision.

“If you don’t make Luke captain, then you’ve got serious problems on your team,” Bennett said. “A captain is supposed to be a leader, someone who shows the younger players the right things to do and how to do it. Luke is that guy.”

No one batted an eyelash. He wasn’t a goal scorer. He wasn’t fancy. He was a walk-on. So how did he do it?

“Teammates aren’t worried about the scholarship or the goals or assists,” Berenson said. “They want a person they can trust, who they can look up to and respect off the ice, away from the rink when no one else is looking.

“I think he was a slam-dunk for captain.”

***

A script tattoo runs along Luke’s right bicep. The dark lettering bears the reference to his favorite verse: Colossians 3:23. It’s why he chose No. 23 for his jersey number.

“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters,” the verse reads.

Luke’s story is hard to believe. His underdog journey hasn’t followed a script. It hasn’t been a path paved by entitlement, but rather one gutted by struggles and decisions. It’s the story of a captain who was overlooked time and time again.

It wasn’t his goal-scoring that kept him on the Michigan hockey team for four seasons — he’s scored 29 times in 158 games. (His family jokes that half of those were empty-netters, too.)

It was his character — character built by family, faith and football.

For Berenson, it was this:

“The bottom line is that this kid is a solid person,” Berenson said. “If you take everything else away, he knows right from wrong, and he’s not afraid to back it up.”

For Stuursma, it was this:

“We might need an hour (to interview), because he’s an unbelievable kid,” the football coach said. “I trust him with my life.”

And for his father, it was this:

“What makes me the proudest is that he’ll take a homeless guy and buy him something to eat,” Tom said. “Or he’ll take a little kid and wrap his arms around him and love him at hockey camp. I’m a lot more proud that he does that than he scored a goal or is captain.”

Luke may only have a handful of games remaining in his hockey career. He was never drafted, though he might test the minor-league waters. If that doesn’t lead anywhere, he wants to be a teacher and a coach.

Michigan’s captain doesn’t fit the mold of a typical student-athlete. But, then again, he never did.

Michigan promised Luke Glendening a chance. He promised he’d never quit.